During my year teaching English in Leipzig in 1999, the school I worked for held the contract for retraining groups of the long-term unemployed both in Leipzig itself and in Hartha, a town about 75 kilometres to the southeast. This was not a coveted gig as instruction began at 7:30 am, a starting time that meant one had to leave the city by 6:00 am the latest. As low man on the totem pole, I was assigned the Hartha gig shortly after my arrival in January. Though I grumbled at first, my assignment to “middle Saxony” turned out to be a blessing in disguise for there I was exposed to a completely different reality than the one I was experiencing in Leipzig. In Hartha the news reports about rural eastern Germany and aspects of GDR history came to life. Whether it was the “flight of the youth”, the rise of neo-Nazi youth culture or the rocky road on the way to the new economic order, Hartha offered perspectives that I couldn’t get in the city.
The video below is a portrait of the town that was shot by the film club at a Hartha elementary school in 1982. For scenes of town life, skip to the 1:30 mark. The film is remarkable for the candour of local residents. When asked what it is they like about their town, one answers, “About Hartha?! At the moment not much! There’s nothing to buy in the grocery store and you have to stand in long lines!.”
Hartha lies about an equal distance from this region’s three main cities, Leipzig, Dresden and Chemnitz, a location that had been to some advantage economically throughout its history. Though relatively small (only about 7,500 residents at the time I was there, down from 9,000 during the GDR period), Hartha’s economic life was traditionally driven by a mix of both agricultural and industrial activity. In GDR times, the town’s working population was typically employed in one of its five major factories which produced textiles, slippers, electric motors, spindle machine (for use in textile production) and shock absorbers. (http://www.hartha.de/hartha/content/3/20080612160545.asp, accessed on January 21, 2015) By the time I arrived, however, these factories either no longer existed or employed only a fraction of their previous workforce.
Not From Around Here: The Advantage of Being an ‘Outsider’
One afternoon after class, I decided to make the short walk into town to check things out. I was wearing a sport coat, a collared shirt and dress pants. As I passed the town’s dilapidated “Imperial Post Office”, I encountered a pair of young boys playing on the sidewalk out in front of their flat. They froze and watched me as if I were some sort of exotic animal. Once he thought I was out of earshot, the older one whispered “Bet you he’s not from Hartha!” I smiled to myself. Reaching the main street, I spotted a small cafe and decided to pop in. Several tables were filled and the room was filled with the buzz of conversation. Until I entered the room that is. At that point everyone went silent and turned to see who this stranger was. I was not from around here. I got my ice cream to go.
As the months passed, however, I discovered that my outsider status had distinct advantages. Speaking decent German and demonstrating an interest in GDR history, I found people eager to share their experiences with me. By 1999, East German history had become particularly sensitive topic of conversation. Many Easterners had found West Germans quick to judge in their interactions and so the past was generally avoided in such interactions. Amongst themselves, eastern Germans were also keen to get beyond the years of recrimination and accusation that had accompanied the upheavals after the Wende. Opening up the past only sewed division and there was little appetite for that. But I seemed to move in a different space for my students, acquaintances and friends. As a non-German (more importantly, a non-Wessi) who spoke the language and had a reasonable knowledge of the history, people seemed confident that I wouldn’t judge them and I found them remarkably motivated to share their stories with me.
Retraining for a Bright Capitalist Future?
I worked in a private school that had been contracted to provide retraining opportunities to local residents most of whom had previously worked in local factories. The retraining options ran the gamut from semi-skilled trades through to more white collar type activities. The English classes were given as part of an introduction to business administration program that also included computer skills, book keeping and secretarial skills. As was the case when I was in elementary school and our class was offered the choice between home economics or shop, the courses skewed along gender lines. As a result, my English class was made up of about 90% women; of these 90% were between the ages of 45-60 and almost all had worked in the textile industry in East German times. This branch of the economy was one of the most important employers of female labour in the socialist era but was almost completely wiped out after unification when the disappearance of state subsidies and exposure to market pressures forced most factories to close.
While my class was attentive and gave an honest effort, teaching them was a great challenge. By and large they had little aptitude for or interest in learning English. In those first weeks at Hartha, I despaired as we repeated the most basic rudiments of English over and over and over. What, I asked myself, was the point of teaching students such as these English? In the unlikely event a business requiring administrative help was to set up shop in Hartha it would receive 22 identical resumes from my students, none of whom would really be in a position to take on this work based on the training they received at the school. There seemed to be no point to our efforts.
About a month into the course, however, the penny dropped. One afternoon after class one of my students, one of the middle-aged woman, lingered to say goodbye and thank me for my teaching. She seemed rather sad to be leaving, something that didn’t quite mesh with her lackluster performance in class and I was confused. In the teachers’ room on break, I mentioned the scene with my two local colleagues, middle-aged women who knew almost almost all my students as their neighbours. They explained that my student was leaving the school not by choice, but rather because her retraining allowance had run out. She’d be moved to the welfare ranks and lose the regular contact with her classmates, likely some of the most important social interaction she had. Perhaps if I had read more Marx it wouldn’t have taken me so long to recognize these “retraining” measures for what they were: efforts to paper over the inadequacies of the capitalist economy and prevent the awakening of what the great man would’ve called the “revolutionary consciousness” of these surplus workers.
Remnants of Class Consciousness and the New Social Order
One thing I quickly noticed about my class was how tight they seemed to be with each other, particularly the group of middle aged women who made up the majority of the group. They frequently organized group activities such as a b-b-q at someone’s house or a bowling night and care was taken to include everyone; even I was regularly invited to join them. (I demurred, but regret that now. What might I have learned!?) At the time I put this closeness down to the fact that these folks had lived and worked together for many years, and this was no doubt part of the story. However, it also seems clear to me now that they were, consciously or perhaps not, trying to recreate something like the Kollektiv that they’d known in their East German workplaces. In GDR society, workplace relationships were at the centre of the state’s value system with the ideal being that one’s social life would revolve around one’s colleagues to a significant extent. The degree to which this was put into practice varied widely, but in smaller towns with little in the way of cultural offerings, such relationships were often of central importance.
There was, however, one exception to the group’s cohesion. It came in the person of K. On the surface, K. belonged to the majority group of middle-aged women in my class. Working with her in class, though, it soon became clear that she was better educated and more used to “book learning” than the others. Self-assured and comfortable speaking in a way that the rest of her cohort typically was not, I noticed her ability right away, but it took me a while to notice the distance between her and the rest of the group. In the breaks, K. rarely spoke to the others, not because she was haughty, I didn’t think, but because there seemed to be little common ground. When she did interject, the others would usually defer to her, but not pick up the thread. It was odd. Once again, my teacher colleagues were able to explain: “Oh, that’s Red K.!”, (in German, “die rote K.”) one offered by way of explanation. When that didn’t suffice, I received the explanation that while K. had worked with the others in the textile mill, she hadn’t been a regular worker, but was the Party Secretary in the factory. As such, she had been one of the women’s superiors and the distance caused by this relationship persisted into the present.
The teachers’ room was also an interesting window onto post-Wende society as it was here that the other two instructors in the business admin program retreated between classes. The pair were both locals who had previously worked in the tool factory that had been housed in what was now our school, one in administration, the other in technical management. They recognized that they were some of the lucky few who had found work, but they explained to me that this status had driven a wedge between them and the students, friends and neighbours they had known for years and who were now retraining at the school. To be honest, though, my teacher colleagues didn’t seem especially put out by this new reality; they were simply grateful for the paid employment. In considering their position, I saw real parallels between it and that of the old Party elite, also a distinct minority and also cut off from the mainstream.
There’s No Place Like Heimat
Not all my students struggled with English. In fact two of them, recent graduates of the local Gymnasium (the academically oriented high school), were rather good. I got to know both these students from chats during the extended break for our “second breakfast” (zweites Fruehstueck; a lovely ritual still adhered to in some German workplaces where the working day begins at an ungodly hour. It sees employees (or students) gather together in mid-morning for a bite to eat and cup of coffee). Both seemed capable, so I wondered what held them here in Hartha where there was nothing on offer for them. Why didn’t they leave?
Thilo smiled and explained his plan. It involved getting his English up to snuff and then applying to university in Leipzig. He wasn’t in a hurry, but he knew his future lay elsewhere. Made sense. Unlike the answer I got from Martina, the best student in the class. When I asked her why she stayed, she looked me in the eye and turned the question back on me: “Why would I leave? This is my Heimat.” Heimat was a concept I was familiar with from my studies but had not really encountered amongst my German friends. It refers to a close identification or sense of belonging that one has with a specific place or region. While still evoked, there’s something old-fashioned about and it is certainly at odds with the demands placed on individuals in the globalized world. In Hartha, however, I came to understand that Heimat was still very much alive and well.
Part of Hartha in 1982 where the junior propagandists extoll the virtues of the new Kindergartens and the town’s industry. For scenes from a textile mill, fast forward to 8:30. But you’ll miss buddy pumping up his Trabi tires with a bike pump (3:15).
During those breaks I would sometimes chat with my students as they leafed through cat magazines or did some knitting, trying to get to know them a bit. In our conversations this concept of Heimat surfaced repeatedly. Many of my students were rooted in “middle Saxony”, could trace their families back for generations and so the idea of leaving simply didn’t enter into the equation. The other factor cementing this tendency was that the vast majority of my students were workers, simple labourers whose horizons were small and who lived in economic circumstances that ensured that these remained so. Leipzig was just down the road, but to my astonishment more than a few of my students had only been there once or twice. In their entire lives! Leipzig, they explained to me, was a city: dirty chaotic and dangerous. There was nothing there, they told me, that they needed to see.
The most exotic member of our group was Manfred, the only other male in the class besides Thilo. A slight man in his mid- to late fifties with a great mustache, Manfred enjoyed an elevated status in the group thanks to his work as a cook on a boat in the East German high seas fishery. Working there was one of the few professions that allowed average East Germans a window to the world and people lucky enough to have this access enjoyed special status in the GDR. Sometimes Manfred could be coaxed to tell his stories, but I got the distinct feeling that he left out most of the good parts in deference to his largely female audience. What a gentleman! I do recall that he had made it all the way to Canada on his travels. In fact, his ship had docked in “Hal-ee-fex” and he had a souvenir plastic plate at home to prove it!
The Nice neo-Nazis From Next Door
In the late 1990s, there was considerable concern about the way in which a neo-Nazi youth culture had spread throughout the areas of the former-East. In those years it was not unusual to run into teenagers sporting clothing or hairstyles commonly associated with radical right politics, particularly in smaller towns or cities. In some regions, neo-Nazi culture had come to play a dominant role within youth culture and how to respond to this was a major issue of the day. On my travels through the East, I ran into such young people more than a few times and, despite the fact that I wasn’t a visible target for them, I found the experience highly unsettling.
Upon starting in Hartha, I discovered that four of the students in the trade program were neo-Nazis with all the trimmings. They’d arrive together each morning in a powder blue Trabant, heads carefully shaved, resplendent in their bomber jackets and Doc Martens. While the locals didn’t seem to have any great issue with them, I avoided them like the plague. Though only 18 or 19, they oozed menace. One morning, I arrived at school and pulled in to park on the street next to the building. As I sat gathering my things, I heard the unmistakeable splutter of a Trabant approaching from behind. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that it was the Nazis. They drove past me and pulled a U-turn in order to park in a spot open almost directly across from me on the other side of the street. I did my best to ignore them and grabbed my bag. As I did, I was startled by a car horn. It took me a second to realize that it had come from the Nazis. “Ignore them,” I told myself, taking a deep breath and continuing out of my door. The horn honked again. I looked up hesitantly to see the driver flicking his headlights and pointing to my car. He was being helpful by pointing out that I’d not turned mine off. Well, there they were, the nice Nazis from next door. (Die netten Nazis von nebenan.) I nodded my thanks and extinguished my headlights.